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Rebuilding Cities Better in the Post-Covid-19 World

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Covid-19 and its means of transmission have created unprecedented challenges for urban planning. How will cities and their residents cope if present standards of architectural design and creating cityscapes are inadequate or unsafe in the face of new pathogens, asks Jeffrey Kok Hui Chan of Singapore University of Technology and Design. Despite uncertainties surrounding the coronavirus, it could spark efforts to rebuild better cities.

Rebuilding Cities Better in the Post-Covid-19 World

Back to the drawing board: The pandemic has challenged many long-held beliefs in urban design and planning (Credit: Maggie Talal)

Responding to the devastating impacts of Covid-19, 50 global leaders, along with the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, pledged to rebuild the global economy including building back better urban areas. “Build back better” has become a catchphrase of this effort but is so far little more than a rallying cry. To build back better will require addressing the challenges of Covid-19 on cities.

Cities consume vast amounts of material and energy resources, and by extension, are critical to the sustainable future of the planet. By 2030, one in every three people will live in cities containing half a million or more residents. One study projected that the world will be entirely urbanized by 2100. Urbanization, however, will be concentrated in the global South, exacerbating inequality and eroding life expectancy as cities there are likely to struggle to provide basic amenities for residents.

Covid-19, and the numerous issues it raises for health systems, global trade and local economy, have heightened the challenges to rebuild better. The pandemic has also challenged many long-held beliefs in urban design and planning. For example, although innovations in digital technology have allowed ride-sharing through companies such as Uber to emerge as a sustainable alternative to traditional automobile usage, consumers have shunned sharing as the pandemic persists.

Dining out outside: Covid-19 has created social-distancing challenges for conventional shops and restaurant operations (Credit: Russ Allison Loar)

Dining out outside: Covid-19 has created social-distancing challenges for conventional shops and restaurant operations (Credit: Russ Allison Loar)

Furthermore, mixed-use real estate developments that combine residences, offices, hotels and shops have previously had success in regenerating surrounding urban districts. Covid-19, however, has created challenges for conventional operations of shops and restaurants, which have in turn created difficulties for mixed-use developments. Urban-modeling studies have shown that social distancing measures affect municipal, regional and international transportation systems, creating challenges for the length and duration with which consumers can safely travel. Adhering to social distancing may lead to a significant increase in car usage, reversing declines in the demand for automobile travel with long-term negative environmental repercussions.

While public-health experts disagree on the transmission pathways of Covid-19, there is a consensus that the risk of infection decreases with increasing distance and increases where there is close-range face-to-face interactions between people within enclosed spaces. Maintaining social distancing, prohibiting large-scale social activities and mandating face masks in public spaces have become protocols for the foreseeable future until a vaccine is found. But these protocols separate people, nullify sociality (the character of being social) and render urban encounters anonymous – everything that can undermine the quintessential quality of urban life that makes cities great.

There is also growing consensus that urban places and the planning processes that shape them influence public health. For example, communities heavily populated by racial minorities that live in unsanitary and crowded conditions in cities planned along segregationist lines have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19. Urban planning decisions have a long lifespan and a tendency to distribute unevenly the material resources required for a healthy human life. Understanding the impact of urbanization on public health is essential for ensuring that planning processes and their distributive institutions are equitable.

The design of the built environment also matters. For example, emerging research has indicated that the architecture of physical spaces and the mechanical systems that ventilate them can modulate aerosol distribution and infectious droplets. In Guangzhou, China, a restaurant’s mechanical ventilation system aligned to the spatial layout of the restaurant produced an airflow that carried infectious particles – and then caused a Covid-19 cluster.

Venting: Improving the health of buildings will require better ventilation and safer contamination-resistant materials for indoor environments (Credit: Anders Sandberg)

Venting: Improving the health of buildings will require better ventilation and safer contamination-resistant materials for indoor environments (Credit: Anders Sandberg)

Harvard University professors Joseph Allen and John Macomber have suggested that the OPEC oil embargo in 1973, which precipitated the energy crisis, led to the tightening of the building envelope and the reduction of ventilation rates to conserve energy. This has led to a buildup of indoor pollutants such as formaldehyde fumes and microorganisms, which in turn precipitated Sick Building Syndrome. Sick buildings sap productivity and increase the risk of headaches, eye irritation, allergic reactions and death. This cocktail of malaise has yet to be systematically eradicated. Now compounding this is the risk of Covid-19 infection. Invariably, revising architectural and building-system design standards will be an integral step to creating healthier structures that can mitigate, and perhaps completely eradicate, the risk of Sick Building Syndrome and Covid-19 infection.

The concerted effort to rebuild better can be informed by three guidelines. First, interventions to build better cities are likely to take place during an unprecedented peacetime recession characterized by protracted periods of low income and private investment and high public debt. This means that new urban interventions have to be fiscally prudent, modest and tactical. However, prudent and modest innovations alone may not yield the best results. Rather, architects and planners should look for what Donella Meadows once referred to as “leverage points” – places in a living system where small interventions can result in large outcomes. In post-Covid-19 cities, people are likely to seek out – and be attracted to – healthy and sanitized healing spaces. Amplifying the roles of biodiversity parks, gardens and farms as the focus of new urban interventions may serve as an important step for building better cities.

Second, urban interventions should improve the health of cities by focusing on the health of buildings. The large-scale National Human Activity Pattern Survey  discovered that respondents spent an average of 87 percent of their time in enclosed buildings. In many places, people also travel in hermetically sealed and mechanically ventilated environments between buildings – underground or overhead linkways, and in cars, buses and trains, which together aggregate into one large and interconnected artificial environment. In moving about, individuals come into constant contact with contaminated surfaces and air. Improving the health of buildings and their connective environments may mean improving ventilation rates, more efficient filters and searching for safer, more sustainable and contamination-resistant coatings and materials for indoor environments.

An afternoon in the park with the virus: Biodiversity parks, gardens and farms will play key roles in building better cities (Credit: Teseum)

An afternoon in the park with the virus: Biodiversity parks, gardens and farms will play key roles in building better cities (Credit: Teseum)

Finally, new urban interventions should seek to reduce inequality in cities. The pandemic has disproportionately affected the poor and marginalized living in overcrowded apartments and polluted neighborhoods – individuals who have few ways to limit exposure to Covid-19 and limited resources with which to mitigate infection.

Amenities that can enhance wellbeing and health are unevenly distributed in many cities. For example, throughout New York City, pedestrians have only 10 percent of the street space despite the fact that they represent 90 percent of the traffic. Though London has 800 square kilometers of green space, only 26 percent is accessible to the public, while 36 percent comprises private residential gardens and the remaining 38 percent is reserved for agriculture. In the US, 100 million people have to walk farther than ten minutes to find a park.

Building back better cities must recognize the ethical imperative for a fairer distribution of urban amenities. Recognizing this, Jason Corburn at the University of California, Berkeley, has suggested focusing on building the best designed and most beautiful projects in the poorest and most neglected areas. This is hardly a provocation; it is a practical suggestion that has been implemented and has positively transformed the city of Medellín in Colombia.

The world has yet to emerge from the pandemic. Many places are experiencing second and third waves of infection. But it is not too early to start thinking about how to build back better cities for the post-Covid-19 world. Cities, and how they are designed, are integral to the success of the circular economy. A healthier and fairer city presents favorable conditions for a more sustainable and equitable economy. Urban design and planning are two of many tools that can be used to fight pandemics. Nevertheless, they may be among the most enduring tools for laying the groundwork of a healthier and fairer economy and society.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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